It may be an apocryphal story repeated so often that we believe it actually happened, but as the story goes, when asked about the organizational culture being created in his burgeoning empire, Sandy Weill, Citigroup’s creator, remarked, “What is culture but something you find in yogurt!”
To be alive and mildly aware in virtually any organization in the early 21st century is to be awash in endless talk of organizational culture and its impact on everything from employee engagement to organizational performance (See Ray Dalio's 200+ Principles for the mighty Bridgewater hedge fund).
For reasons not wholly understood even by experts in organizational culture, we have become obsessed with this subject and its seemingly mystical properties. Jesse Price, a leading contemporary thinker around the issue of organizational culture and a senior consultant in Spencer Stuart’s organization and leadership practice, calls culture the “garbage can” of organizational life. Everything we don’t like or have no real explanation for is ascribed to “the culture.” Run a Google search of the phrase “organizational culture” and you will be rewarded with this useful metric related to the subject: About 15,200,000 results (0.68 seconds).
In a 2012 Harvard Business Review (HBR) article entitled “Why ‘Company Culture’ is a Misleading Term” John Traphaganm writes:
“When I ask business people to define culture – or even when I ask students in my class on organizational culture to do so - it turns out to be difficult. I either get a simple definition, such as ‘the values of a group’ or I get ‘interesting question’ and something of a blank look as a response. The problem here is that while we use the term ‘culture’ constantly, most of us give very little thought to what that term means and how its use influences behavior and thought within organizations.”
Similarly, in a 2013 HBR article entitled “What is Organizational Culture? And Why Should We Care?”, author and professor Michael Watkins recounts the results of a “facilitated” conversation he conducted on LinkedIn in which he asked people to define organizational culture and predictably, over 300 responses showed more difference than similarity.
So why all the fuss? We love to endlessly gas on about culture. It’s like the phrase “be more strategic”; everyone says it, but no one can define it. Can’t we just have this one simple pleasure of organizational life?
Well yes, and no. For those of us driven by the desire to bring order to the chaos of the human and organizational dimensions of the companies we serve, how are we to do anything about this nebulous phenomenon that our stakeholders see as the root of all good and evil without addressing the central dilemma: If you cannot define a thing, how can you change a thing? And, are we behaving as responsible practitioners if we allow the stakeholders we serve, whether in the C-Suite or on the line, to continue to muddle around and use the term to justify actions that may waste the time, effort and energy of the organization and gain little or no lasting change?
What most experts will tell us is that superficial or one-dimensional approaches to culture rarely succeed. The phenomenon that is organizational culture is resistant to full frontal assaults. Simply invoking the word as part of an organizational intervention may undermine efforts to effect change in the expected area of focus.
Edgar Schein, Professor Emeritus of the Sloan School of Management at MIT, is arguably the godfather of organizational culture. He tells us, “What really drives culture – its essence – is the learned, shared tacit assumptions on which people base their daily behavior.” It is a somewhat academic description but instructive in helping us to see that culture is largely shared learning about practices, norms, incentives and ways of doing things that over time fall into the collective unconscious and yet continue to drive the behaviors of individuals. If we as practitioners are to make change we have to focus not on the outcomes that we then label culture, but on the ways in which an organization engages in creating shared learning and how that learning influences behavior toward making lasting change over time.
So a useful starting point may be to simply stop using the word “culture” to define organizational conditions that vex us and to start looking at the drivers and underlying forces that shape the outcomes that we label as culture. To do so we should adopt an interdisciplinary mindset by looking across the four interdependent contexts that can help us to understand and diagnose such outcomes:
Anthropology: what are the forces that shaped the formative aspects of the “society” we are examining?
Psychology: why do the members of the “society” – individually and collectively – do what they do?
Sociology: how do the members of the “society” interact with each other?
Management Science (with apologies to Henry Mintzberg who tells us that management is a practice, not a science): what are the tools of the practitioner that can be brought to bear to influence and impact the overall effectiveness of the “society”?
While any one of these lenses can be helpful in diagnosing the problem and even prescribing a useful solution, unless we cross-reference across these disciplines we may fail to address the problem holistically.
Taking this to a more practical level, Roger Connors management consultant and author of Change the Culture, Change the Game, in an online presentation to the 2013 Best Practice Institute (BPI) webinar shared his “results pyramid.” The graphic depicts four levels of focus and helps us to see where we can best target efforts to change culture: